Leading Senators Demand U.S. Limit Help for Beijing

March 16, 1999 - Eric Schmitt - The New York Times

Influential senators threatened Monday to block the Clinton administration's leading diplomatic effort to improve fast-deteriorating relations with China, and they urged the suspension of some scientific exchange programs.

Sens. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., and Ernest F. Hollings, D-S.C., said they would move to stop any effort by the White House to help China become a member of the World Trade Organization this year, reflecting congressional anger over President Clinton's response to suspicions that China stole nuclear secrets.

And the Republican chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Richard Shelby of Alabama, urged the president or Energy Secretary Bill Richardson to put a moratorium on visits by scientists from countries like China and Iran to American national weapons laboratories, and on reciprocal visits by American scientists to foreign installations.

"Our labs are not as secure as they should be," Shelby told reporters after an hourlong, closed meeting with CIA Director George Tenet. "This perhaps is just the tip of an iceberg."

The Energy Department last week fired a Taiwan-born scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory for security breaches, after the FBI questioned him in connection with the suspected theft of nuclear weapons designs. Investigators say they believe the scientist, Wen Ho Lee, gave the Chinese sensitive information on nuclear detonations during a visit there for a 1988 seminar. Lee has not been charged with any crime, but is the prime suspect in the case. China denies any theft and has called the allegations of nuclear espionage outlandish.

Members of the House and Senate have criticized the administration for not tightening security quickly enough and failing to keep Congress adequately informed about the seriousness of the possible breaches at Los Alamos.

David Leavy, a spokesman for the National Security Council, said Monday night the administration would work with Congress to resolve the WTO issue, but the official rejected Shelby's proposal. "There's no evidence the visitors program has contributed to any damage to national security," Leavy said.

The double-barreled attack from Capitol Hill came as Richardson and Tenet, in separate closed briefings, tried to contain the political fallout from the administration's handling of the spy case by explaining steps the administration has taken to prevent any more thefts.

Tenet announced that a retired four-star admiral, David Jeremiah, will head an independent panel of experts to review the possible harm to national security resulting from suspected thefts that took place in the 1980s and that were discovered by nuclear arms experts at Los Alamos in 1995. Jeremiah is expected to report by early next month.

But even as the administration stepped up its defense of its response to the spy case, the White House took a blow on its trade policy with China. The warning from Helms, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, and Hollings, the ranking Democrat on the Commerce Committee, was issued in a letter sent to all senators.

"The continuing problems with Chinese human rights violations, espionage and possible technology transfers," they wrote, "suggest that this is not the appropriate time for China to enter the WTO."

Only two weeks ago, in Beijing, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright assured China's leaders that the question of whether China was ready to enter the WTO -- a decade-long aspiration for China and a move that could prove enormously beneficial to the country's economy -- would be decided solely on commercial grounds. It would not hinge, she said, on China's human rights record or other issues.

But in recent weeks it has become increasingly clear that even if that is the administration's plan, the atmosphere in Congress is rapidly changing. And congressional approval will be necessary, because China's entry would require a major amendment of the law that allows Congress to review, each year, whether to extend "most favored nation" trading status to Beijing.

"This has become a poisonous issue," one of the president's top economic advisers said the other day. "And it could blow up the whole deal, if there is a deal."

The letter from Sens. Helms and Hollings, which was reported in Monday's Wall Street Journal, mirrors conditions that the House Democratic leader, Dick Gephardt of Missouri, has made and portends a tough fight for China to join the WTO this year.

Even as anger in Congress grows on the trade front, there is greater anxiety over security at Los Alamos and other national weapons labs. The labs had long resisted FBI and congressional pressure to tighten their security policies.

The Energy Department, which oversees the labs, has been lax in its supervision. The department, for example, never filed a congressionally required annual report in 1998 on the status of security at the labs.

Shortly after taking over as Energy secretary last fall, Richardson learned of the urgency of the spy case and reinstated background checks on all foreign visitors, but it was a move the FBI had recommended 17 months earlier.

Shelby was unmoved Monday, saying, "The president or the Energy Secretary should put a moratorium on the exchange of people coming into our labs, and our scientists going to their labs, and perhaps giving them information."

Sen. Bob Kerrey, of Nebraska, the Intelligence Committee's ranking Democrat, distanced himself Monday from Shelby's suggestion of a moratorium noting that "it's not a situation where foreign visitors are the problems, it's the employees."

The Energy Department, in a statement Monday night, said rigorous screening and security measures were in place to insure foreign visitors could not gain access to classified material.

But Kerrey expressed concern over security at the laboratories, even with the improvements Richardson has put in place, including doubling the counterintelligence budget.

"I no longer have any sense of security that we're doing the right thing," Kerrey told reporters after meeting with Tenet. "What I have right now is a considerable amount of nervousness over our counterintelligence efforts and their effectiveness."

As Senate Republicans pounced on the spy case as evidence that the administration's policy of engaging China turned a blind eye to national security, a top Republican analyst, William Kristol, accused congressional Republicans of hypocrisy.

"Republicans have largely supported the president and Sandy Berger on engagement and trade above all else in China," Kristol said Monday, referring to the president's national security adviser, Samuel Berger. "Ultimately, it looks like, hey, something hit the headlines and let's take advantage of it."

  • Return to Wen Ho Lee Page